In spite of the vast expanse of wilderness in this country, most Canadian children grow up in urban settings. In other words, they live in a world conceived, shaped and dominated by people. Even the farms located around cities and towns are carefully groomed and landscaped for human convenience. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but in such an environment, it’s very easy to lose any sense of connection with nature.
In city apartments and dwellings, the presence of cockroaches, fleas, ants, mosquitoes or houseflies is guaranteed to elicit the spraying of insecticides. Mice and rats are poisoned or trapped, while the gardener wages a never-ending struggle with ragweed, dandelions, slugs and root-rot. We have a modern arsenal of chemical weapons to fight off these invaders and we use them lavishly.
We worry when kids roll in the mud or wade through a puddle because they’ll get “dirty.” Children learn attitudes and values very quickly and the lesson in cities is very clear – nature is an enemy, it’s dirty, dangerous or a nuisance. So youngsters learn to distance themselves from nature and to try to control it. I am astonished at the number of adults who loathe or are terrified by snakes, spiders, butterflies, worms, birds – the list seems endless.
If you reflect on the history of humankind, you realize that for 99 per cent of our species’ existence on the planet, we were deeply embedded in and dependent on nature. When plants and animals were plentiful, we flourished. When famine and drought struck, our numbers fell accordingly. We remain every bit as dependent upon nature today – we need plants to fix photons of energy unto sugar molecules and to cleanse the air and replenish the oxygen. It is folly to forget our dependence on an intact ecosystem. But we do whenever we teach our offspring to fear or detest the natural world. The urban message kids get runs completely counter to what they are born with, a natural interest in other life forms. Just watch a child in a first encounter with a flower or an ant – there is instant interest and
fascination. We condition them out of it.
The result is that when my 7-year old daughter brings home new friends, they invariably recoil in fear when she tries to show them her favorite pets – three beautiful salamanders her grandfather got for her in Vancouver. And when my 3-year old comes wandering in with her treasures – millipedes, spiders, slugs and sowbugs that she catches under rocks lining the front lawn – children and adults alike usually respond by saying “yuk.”
I can’t overemphasize the tragedy of that attitude. For, inherent in this view is the assumption that human beings are special and different and that we lie outside nature. Yet it is belief that is creating many of our environmental problems today.
Does it matter whether we sense our place in nature so long as we have cities and technology? Yes, for many reasons, not the least of which is that virtually all scientists were fascinated with nature as children and retained that curiosity throughout their lives. But a far more important reason is that if we retain a spiritual sense of connection with all other life forms, it can’t help but profoundly affect the way we act. Whenever my daughter sees a picture of an animal dead or dying, she asks me fearfully, “Daddy are there any more?” At 7 years, she already knows about extinction and it frightens her.
The yodel of a loon at sunset, the vast flocks of migrating waterfowl in the fall, the indomitable salmon returning thousands of kilometers – these images of nature have inspired us to create music, poetry and art. And when we struggle to retain a handful of California condors or whooping cranes, it’s clearly not from a fear of ecological collapse, it’s because there is something obscene and frightening about the disappearance of another species at our hands.
If children grow up understanding that we are animals they will look at other species with a sense of fellowship and community. If they understand their ecological place – the biosphere – then when children see the great virgin
forests of the Queen Charlotte Islands being clearcut, they will feel physical pain, because they will understand that those trees are an extension of themselves. When children who know their place in the ecosystem see factories spewing poison into the air, water and soil, they will feel ill because someone has violated their home. This is not mystical mumbo-jumbo because we have lost a sense of ecological place. Those of us who are parents have to realize the unspoken, negative lessons we are conveying to our children. Otherwise, they will continue to desecrate this planet as we have.
It’s not easy to avoid giving these hidden lessons. I have struggled to cover my dismay and queasiness when Severn and Sarika come running in with a large wolf spider or when we’ve emerged from a ditch covered with leeches or when they have been stung accidently by yellowjackets feeding on our leftovers. But that’s nature. I believe efforts to teach our children to love and respect other life forms are priceless.
1. What device of emphasis sparks the opening sentence, and how does it begin to introduce Suzuki’s subject? 2. Does Suzuki explore more fully the causes or effects of children’s attitudes toward nature? Which paragraphs analyze mostly causes and which mostly effects? Is Suzuki right to place the causes first? 3. Suzuki no doubt hopes his argument will spur us to action. Does his closing promote his goal? When he admits in paragraph 11 that “It’s not easy to avoid giving these hidden lessons,” are you discouraged or challenged? 4. Why is paragraph 6 the shortest one of the essay?